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Tony's Take

Messenger: Will Kevin Strickland case turn the tide on how Missouri deals with wrongful convictions?

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Post-Dispatch columnists Aisha Sultan and Tony Messenger discuss the Kevin Strickland wrongful conviction case.

I sat in the jury box and fidgeted with the sheets of paper in front of me.

The courtroom was empty except for me and my fellow jurors.

Innocent or guilty of murder? The woman’s life was in our hands.

Well, the fictional woman. There was no real defendant. This was a mock trial competition in the St. Louis County Justice Center. Future lawyers from several area law schools were arguing the same case over and over again last weekend, first on the prosecution side and then the defense, to hone their craft.

I was a volunteer juror, mostly there to rank their performance. The young law students from the University of Missouri-Kansas City won the competition, which was put on by the office of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell.

After we ranked the participants in the two cases that I watched, we jurors were asked to determine a verdict. In one case, the better attorneys were the prosecutors; in another case, it was the defense. Because the attorneys, the judge and the witnesses were all human beings, both trials, which began with the same set of facts and circumstances, turned out very differently.

This is how trials work in real life, too. Lawyers make decisions about what evidence to present and in what order; what questions to ask witnesses; and whom to put on the stand. Judges rule on objections to certain evidence, which can be different from trial to trial. In both cases, we found the defendant not guilty.

The process got me thinking about Kevin Strickland. Last week, Strickland appeared in a Kansas City courtroom pleading to be released from prison. He’s been there more than 40 years, convicted of a triple murder that he says he didn’t commit. He’s not alone in that opinion. Strickland was in court because Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says she believes Strickland is innocent. So does the presiding judge in the district. So does the only eyewitness to the crime, who has recanted the testimony that convicted Strickland.

Baker took the case to court seeking to free Strickland using a law passed this year by the Missouri Legislature. It gives prosecutors the legal right to seek justice in cases that their offices have investigated and determined a defendant was wrongfully convicted.

The Legislature passed the law, in part, because St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner has been blocked by the Missouri courts from seeking the same sort of hearing for Lamar Johnson. Like Strickland, Johnson has long maintained his innocence; Gardner also has said she believes he is innocent.

Strickland and Johnson, who are both Black, are hardly alone in Missouri. Numerous men have been released in the past decade after wrongful convictions, and others — like Christopher Dunn and Michael Politte — are similarly pleading their cases these days.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt is one of the reasons that Strickland, Johnson, Dunn and Politte are still in prison despite strong evidence of actual innocence as well as violations of their civil rights during their trials. Schmitt, a Republican who is spending much of his time in office running for the U.S. Senate, sees the job as a prosecutor differently than both Baker and Gardner.

That’s what defense attorney Robert Ramsey told me recently. Ramsey, of Kirkwood, fought for 13 years to free Mark Woodworth of a wrongful murder conviction in Chillicothe, in part because then-Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat, approached cases the same way as Schmitt.

“For years, practitioners in this area have been all too familiar with the AG’s explicit mantra that it is the AG’s duty to defend each and every conviction to the last court regardless of the facts and circumstances,” Ramsey says. “This is directly contrary to a prosecutor’s ethical duties as set forth in the Canons of Ethics and by the U.S. Supreme Court and courts in every state. When a prosecutor becomes aware that a mistake or impropriety has occurred it is his or her duty to correct that mistake and see that justice is done.”

It’s a lesson that I hope the young, future lawyers who gathered in St. Louis take to heart. In conversation after one case, some told St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Brian May that they wanted to be defense attorneys; others wanted to be prosecutors. For those who choose that route, Ramsey’s words offer important guidance.

“It’s ironic that the same politicians who whined for years that government was the problem not the solution evidently have always tacitly believed there is an exception to that generalization — the criminal justice system is perfect,” Ramsey says. “Police and prosecutors never make mistakes, always act in good faith, there are no such things as Brady violations or prosecutor misconduct and their decisions about who is guilty are sacrosanct.”

For a variety of reasons, the American criminal justice system is flawed. Mistakes are made. And as one of the jurors in Politte’s case told me recently, jurors make mistakes, too. That can haunt them for decades. One of these days, the Missouri Supreme Court could set Politte free. Ditto Strickland and Johnson and Dunn.

Overturning convictions that judges, or jurors or prosecutors got wrong doesn’t indict the system, it celebrates a commitment to justice.

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